Even if they understood the sentiment, conservatives never fully grasped “hope and change.” The rationale that propelled Barack Obama to eight years in the White House was as likely to be lampooned and dismissed as it was to be examined by the right. They mocked Obama’s true believers—those who expected the federal government to pay their mortgage and gas bills. These poor souls allowed conservatives to confirm their preconception that the Obama voters were mesmerized by a fantasy of which they’d soon be disabused. Obama’s more rational admirers deserved closer study. Eight years after “hope and change,” many of them were the subject of sobering journalistic profiles. Some abandoned Obama and Democrats for Trump whereas others were so disillusioned that they withdrew from politics. It is rarely spoken of, but Trump is buoyed by a sentiment similar to that which held Obama aloft. Equally unexamined is the widespread assumption that Trump is somehow immune from the pressures that yielded such dissatisfaction with his predecessor. He is not.
For evidence that everything old is new again, look no further than the results of a new Wall Street Journal/NBC News survey. The poll found, as others have, that Trump is one of the least popular new presidents of the modern age. Apparently, though, the plurality of Americans who disapprove of the president’s performance in office are of less interest than those adults—not registered voters—who do. The Journal’s write-up of its poll results focuses primarily on performing a forensic analysis of those Americans for whom Trump represents the last, best hope of a generation.
The poll found Trump enjoys the support of a “critical middle”—not just those who voted for him in 2016 but those who backed third-party candidates, opposed Hillary Clinton more than they supported Trump, or simply didn’t vote at all. While this represents a substantial one-third of poll respondents, more compelling is the finding that a sizable majority of voters truly believe that Trump offers the chance for dramatic and, presumably, positive change.
Sixty percent of respondents describe themselves as hopeful and optimistic about the future of the country, a significant rise since Trump’s inauguration. A plurality of Americans surveyed, 41 percent, said they think the economy will continue to improve in a Trump administration, and more than seven in ten of those respondents preemptively credited Trump for future improvements. Most striking, for the first time since 2002, a majority of adults (52 percent) said they do not believe that the “economic and political systems in the country are stacked against people like me.”
It is understandable why Trump supporters would want to celebrate these results, but they shouldn’t do so unreservedly. These findings portend challenges and pitfalls for our new president.
It is a mark of the newness of the administration that it is still judged on the opinions of its most ardent supporters. This was Barack Obama’s experience, too, before the challenges of governing made America’s fickle swing voters a more critical object of study. Even judging Trump by the standards of those least likely to hold him to any, these findings are troubling. Trump will be judged on fundamentals, as is every president: crises abroad, defined primarily as wars involving U.S. or allied troops, and the performance of the economy. The president will be faced not merely with the management of the foreign calamities he inherits but also those yet to occur. It will likely be the performance of the economy, however, on which Trump’s competence is judged.
The present economic picture is mixed. With rare exceptions, quarterly GDP growth remains as anemic as it was for most of the Obama presidency. Yet the unadjusted unemployment rate remains well below 5 percent, at which point economists believe we have reached the equivalent of “full employment.” American manufacturing productivity has been rising steadily for years, and retail and food sales are up. The Dow Jones Industrial Average continues to close at record highs on a near-daily basis. While the business cycle runs in nearly decennial phases and America is due for another recession, there are no recessionary signals or even warning signs in these macroeconomic data.
And yet, this isn’t the whole picture. As Nicholas Eberstadt wrote in his widely-read COMMENTARY essay “Our Miserable 21st Century,” these traditional metrics fail to capture the lived experience of a massive segment of the American public. He observed: Income growth is segmented and its distribution is poor. Millions of Americans are out of work and not looking for work, many of whom have been self-medicated into complicity. America’s healthcare outcomes have deteriorated precipitously for certain segments of society.
This is the segment that Trump has dubbed “the forgotten man,” and for whom he has styled himself a champion. It is for this reason that, despite the lack of any clear recessionary trend in the economy, Trump has proposed stimulative, Keynesian great works, not because they will help the economy but because a large portion of the American public demands a grand gesture from Washington on their behalf. Trump has made many ambitious promises to this underserved faction of the American public. Those to whom he was speaking were listening, and they have responded with optimism and affection. The America Eberstadt describes, however, is as much structural as it is moral and psychological—perhaps more so. Trump has given the “forgotten man” reason to dream again, and there is nothing quite as embittering as unmet expectations.
For a movement as maligned and misunderstood as Trump’s, any data that legitimizes it as broad-based and mainstream will be seen as vindicating. Fewer have remarked upon the responsibilities that are associated with this kind of blind faith. Millions of Americans have placed their fondest wishes upon Trump’s shoulders. Many are surely demanding the president perform at an unreasonable level, and they are equally sure to be disappointed. Rather than measure expectations, Trump is making Obama’s mistake by indulging the idea that “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for; we are the change that we seek.” In the end, that kind of faith in a politician is misguided. It’s a lesson we seem doomed to forever relearn.